In today's world of web 2.0 - also described as the participatory web - defined by social media and networking tools like blogs, wikis, Google and Yahoo Groups, Facebook, MySpace and more, it has become easy for consumers to voice their opinions about any subject and to be heard by a much larger audience than ever before. Of course, the majority of people more likely are readers, rather than active contributors of this ever increasing amount of user generated content (UGC) on the web. That does not diminish the effectiveness and influence of UGC, as the credibility and influence of this collective intelligence produced by all these comments is rated very highly by people as shown in various polls conducted on the subject in the past two years, such as the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The Influence of Web 2.0
Personal recommendations by family and friends have always had the highest trust factor and this largely remains the case. What has happened with the introduction of these various web based communication tools, often described under the overall term of web 2.0, is that comments by peers or people with similar outlooks and tastes have spread across the web like wildfire.
Sites like Facebook and MySpace allow easy information exchange on a whole range of topics of interest among relatives, business contacts and friends across an ever expanding network. Gather is another site offering people a community platform around their interests and the site is used primarily by people over age 35 with an increasing number of boomers actively participating. Ning is a site that allows individuals to start their own network and invite people with similar interests to join. Wesabe is a financial services site has a strong community and information sharing component to it as well.
The result of this proliferation of sites making sharing comments across a wide audience as easy as writing an email, is companies are permanently exposed to the marketplace which has taken on the form of a permanent conversation. This phenomenon was first predicted back in the late '90s by the authors of "The Cluetrain Manifesto" and described by James Surowiecki in his book"The Wisdom of Crowds" . The ability to post an opinion that can be viewed and commented on by millions and spread further like a virus has led Seth Godin , the well known online marketing guru and author to introduce the term "ideavirus". This form of "citizen-journalism" has profound effects on companies and organizations of all kinds and especially on their brands.
Web 2.0 and Your Credit Union's Brand
A brand is much more than a logo, tag-line or color scheme of your physical presence. It is the cumulative experience of your product or services by customers across all touch points. It is in the daily interchange between organizations and their existing and prospective customers where brands are formed, honed and improved - or ruined. In the past, the relationship with customers was based very much on one-way messages in the form of advertising and public relations. These remain important marketing instruments but they no longer are sufficient to deal with the immediacy of the news that has taken on a constant stream on the web that flows 24/7.
Reputations are made and impacted both positively and negatively at a much more rapid pace than in the past. This calls for a constant monitoring effort of what is said about your organization across the web and to take appropriate measures if necessary. This is not only important in times of a crisis, but as a readily available tool to gauge the interest and opinions expressed about your service or product in general. No easier form of customer research and attitudes towards your brand exists in the market today than being involved in the conversation about you.
In this context, the term reputation management is used to describe efforts to join in the conversation stream to observe and monitor what is being communicated as well as to take corrective action when needed. Various tools exist that allow this kind of monitoring on a regular basis. They start from the simple use of Google or Yahoo keyword search terms and feed the results into a personalized RSS stream, using Technorati to search for blogs covering your industry or company, to traffic measuring sites like Alexa or IceRocket .
Whatever tools you use, it is evident that time needs to be invested in this important task and many cases organizations are faced with the difficulty of finding the right staff resources to take this on. As in the case of starting and maintaining a corporate blog, decisions need to be made about how to tackle the overall issue of reputation management. To ignore the subject is not an option if you want to stay relevant to your increasingly demanding audience of existing customers and if you want to acquire new ones. Corporate engagement is a necessity. Not only are reputations made on the web today but they can as quickly be ruined if you are not aware and engaged.